Keeping your retail brand vital is a job in and of itself. If the brand has been yours from the beginning, you very likely know what you stand for, where you’ve been and where you need to go. But what if you acquire a brand, one that can use some reinvention? How do you step in and know what to hold and what to discard—all while keeping the doors open?
It’s a role that Marilyn Rosenthal took on in fall 2016, when she bought At Barre in Greenville, NC. The 40-something-year-old store was almost as old as its new owner, and both were in need of change. While Rosenthal had enjoyed a career as a professional dancer, touring with Dance Caravan, recent years were devoted to raising her family, philanthropy and working in education as a teacher and counselor. She was ready to try something different. The store was in need, too.
One day Rosenthal got a call from Hannah Goswick and Cyndy Wilson, who managed the store for its retired owner, announcing that At Barre would be put up for sale. “They were worried no one had an interest, and my name had been thrown out there,” Rosenthal says. “I thought: ‘This is it, what I want.’ I had been home raising my children, and after 10 years I was ready to go back to work.”
Not wanting someone else to acquire At Barre, Rosenthal immediately set out to secure financing. “I took a course on writing a business plan,” she says. “Then I pitched myself and my passion to the bank.” Rosenthal had no retail experience, but as a dancer and a dance mom, she knew the dance store world—from the customer’s point of view. She knew the types of merchandise required, what environment would be most enticing and the marketing necessary to cultivate brand loyalty. She also understood the potential of cause marketing, another passion, and social media. “Seeing 41 years of your life come together for this moment is a powerful motivator for success,” she says. “At Barre put it all together in one package.”
Taking Stock of the Store’s Strengths
The original owner, Dorothy Ellen—“Dot”—opened At Barre in 1975 in downtown Greenville, moving the business 10 years later to its present location in a shopping mall on a main thoroughfare. It continues to serve 40-plus studios, along with East Carolina University and its dance and theater department, as well as churches and stage performers.
A bond and mutual need existed between customers and the store, and as Rosenthal looked to the future of the store under her command, she recognized her task would be strengthening the brand by introducing efficiencies that would support better customer service. Her vision and her mission are summed up in the new tagline: “Same name. Better service. New vision.”
Besides the store’s legacy, Rosenthal recognized the other unique assets were its key employees, Wilson and Goswick. Both women have remained with At Barre and seen their roles grow. Wilson continues on the sales floor as manager, applying her 42 years of expert pointe shoe fitting—she’s helping her third generation of dancers now—to this essential part of the business that keeps At Barre a destination in eastern North Carolina. Goswick now oversees media and marketing, managing online sales and social media. “It’s all hands-on at all times, but we love what we do,” says Rosenthal. “We wouldn’t be able to work as a team if we didn’t enjoy each other and the service that we provide.”
Out With the Old
The look and layout of the store were the first physical features that Rosenthal tackled. “I wanted people to walk in and know At Barre was in someone else’s hands now, and we’re making it better.” She got the keys in September 2016, and the store remained open during the renovation, closing only over the Christmas holiday for repainting. Out went the 20-year-old teal-and-hot-pink color scheme; in came a pale, crisp gray with black trim, for a subtle, sophisticated backdrop that brings the merchandise forward.
Rosenthal then moved on to the layout, restructuring and reorganizing merchandise placement to stimulate sales. She kept the pointe shoe fitting area in the back right of the store, but brought all of the dancewear needs to the front, including the kids’ section, which moved from the left rear of the floor to the front near the door. The result: a well-delineated front and back in the 2,500-square-foot space.
To promote the open feeling she envisioned, Rosenthal moved a lot of the display to the walls, with built-in cubbies for tights, so it’s easy for customers to make a selection. She installed a nesting table like those she saw at major retailers in her other favorite city, New York, to create a focal point that’s easy to shop. She found another table in the stockroom and freshened it up with a new coat of paint to display some accessories. A few floor racks “help us to rotate the merchandise, to keep the store fresh-looking and inventory moving,” she says
When she bought At Barre, Rosenthal knew she wanted to introduce a unique element, so in the rear left area, opposite the shoes, she created a store within the store, Barre 2 Bar. “I thought, ‘What do we sell in off months when it’s not pointe shoe season?’ As a mom, I’m often in workout clothes, so I decided to add athleisure.”
Liturgical remains strong, but seasonal, so she moved it back to the stockroom on a rolling rack, bringing it out for clients as needed.
A lot of decades-old inventory remained, including costumes. All of it had to go, Rosenthal decided. Nonsalable items went to charities and hospitals. “I’m a Make a Wish volunteer,” she says, “and we gave to boys’ and girls’ clubs, theater programs and charities.”
In With the New
Moving to a clean, sleek look in the store meant updating the logo, too. A simple black-and-white graphic shows a barre connecting the store’s initials, A and B. It instantly communicates the brand’s contemporary yet classic positioning.
Rosenthal assessed the brands and lines the store sold, drawing on her experience as a dancer and dance mom, so she knew which lines would be strong—Motionwear, Bloch, Suffolk, Russian Pointe, Eurotard Dancewear, Body Wrappers/Angelo Luzio, Capezio and Sugar and Bruno, to name a few. She introduced new labels to the community through the Barre 2 Bar section, including Spiritual Gangster, from California, and Onzie. She also created a Barre 2 Bar private-label shirt. “Part of my mission is giving back—I’ve been with Make a Wish since 2002. It’s part of who I am.” She and her team designed the shirt with Morgan Printers, the company that helped create her new logo. It sports the hashtag #givingbackisthenewbrilliant (“meaning talented, something that shines,” she says), and it carries the store label.
In fact, there’s a dedicated “give back” section in the store featuring merchandise made by companies that contribute a portion of revenues to programs for the homeless, kids and families in need, to name just a few. “I want to make it easier for customers who want to give back to the community,” she says. “As dancers we are given a spotlight for a reason. We can use it to help others.”
Rosenthal then brought in full-body mannequins, changing them out with new inventory or to promote transitional pieces with seasonal themes or ideas she develops, like a program called “repurpose your pointe.” Rosenthal paints or embellishes pointe shoes according to a theater playbill (Oz was one) “or whatever I’m thinking. I want to inspire kids to do it for themselves or for fun when they are done with their pointe shoes.”
A new approach to merchandise, and an online store on the new website, required a new point-of-sale system. “Before, everything was on a legal pad. There was no computer system!” says Rosenthal. She wanted software that coordinated with online sales and could provide up-to-the-second information on sales and inventory. She and her team settled on ShopKeep for the store merchandise and BigCommerce for online sales. Rosenthal is thrilled with the improvement. “The programs are integrated, so we can pull off inventory and stay on top of it.”
Bringing the Brand to Life
Social media is an integral part of any retail business these days. Rosenthal uses it to connect in a real way and in real time with her customers. In addition to a Facebook page, the brand has two Instagram accounts. One, atbarre_dancewear, promotes her dedicated dance lines and events in the store; the other, barre_2_bar, highlights the transitional and athleisure-wear pieces, with some apparel items showing up on both pages. The posts have served to boost her business nationwide.
While pointe shoe fitting has always been integral to At Barre’s business, Rosenthal and her team instituted a special program for first fittings. “We give a certificate and highlight the dancer’s name and studio, and she receives her picture at the ballet barre, with the certificate, congratulating her that she’s on pointe.” The picture is also posted on Instagram to announce the occasion. “It’s a nice way to celebrate that first-time fitting, and parents love it.”
In-store promotions also tell the brand story to cement connections with the customer. In addition to the giving-back programs, Rosenthal offers a kind of Groupon-style gift card. Pay $40 for a card and get $50 worth of merchandise. Customers buy the cards as gifts or for themselves for future purchases. Promotions run throughout the year at designated times—Valentine’s Day and Christmas, as well as flash sales to stimulate business in slow periods. “We use SnapRetail to send an e-mail to subscribers and also promote on Instagram and Facebook.” Cards are redeemable in-store and online.
In reinventing the At Barre brand, Rosenthal actually brought several new businesses into the business—an online store, the Barre 2 Bar brand extension and her give-back programs. “It’s a working list in progress. I’m constantly adding to it and prioritizing to see the next thing I can hit to make us more effective,” she says. As times change, so do the priorities. “You have to be flexible in your list and willing to shuffle around things.”
Rosenthal nevertheless remains mindful of all it took to get her here, including the legacy of the original owner, Dot. In the store is a glass case with a picture of Dot and an old “We’re open” sign. “Dot laid the groundwork,” says Rosenthal. As a business owner, she says, “you wouldn’t be where you are without the sweat of the person before you. I couldn’t do it without Cyndy and Hannah. And none of us could do it without Dot.”
Charlotte Barnard is a writer living in New York who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.
Photography by Eric Jones